"Waste not, want not" were the bywords of my parents, who survived the Great Depression and World War II. Although their lives later became much easier, lessons learned during those times of crisis would never be forgotten.
That's why, when Mom's water heater sprang a leak, soaking the boxes stored nearby, she attempted to salvage whatever she could, including an old, partially finished quilt top.
After washing the unfinished quilting project, Mom decided it was worth completing. Her mother had started it before my mother became a wife. It was one of several projects my grandmother passed along to Mom.
So Mom added a border, backing, her favorite quilting design, and fresh binding.
She threw it into my arms the next time I stopped by the house. "It's not perfect, that's for sure," she said. "But it's useful."
I tucked the quilt carefully into my car and took it to the house that my husband and I were rehabbing across town. We hung the quilt on a newly refinished wall to an accompaniment of low-level male grumbling. "It's a blanket," my husband argued. "It belongs on the bed."
But once we stepped back to admire the new wall art, the grumbling ceased, and we basked in the sense of family that old hand-stitched quilt gave us.
It was made of cotton fabric pieced into basket patterns forming 10-inch squares. They were placed with 10-inch squares of shirting fabric. Grandma cut the quilt pieces from scraps she had saved, leftovers from clothes she made for her brothers before 1912.
Two generations of women, my ancestors, worked on this piece of cloth, this "fish and baskets" quilt, as my sons christened it. Grandma had turned one basket patch sideways, and it looked like a fish. Her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage warned her of pride, so she slipped an imperfection into whatever she made. Everyone could see this one.
In her eyes it was an ego-deflating flaw, but for my boys, it was an endearment that gave the quilt personality.
When Mom came to visit, all she saw were her uneven stitches and the little wave at the bottom where the fabric didn't lay quite right.
She groused. Unlike Grandma, she was embarrassed at the lack of perfection. "My stitches aren't even," she pointed out.
She squinted at it and then turned away, muttering, "I can't believe you hung that on the wall."
I hugged her from behind, nearly knocking her off her feet and gave her a big kiss on the ear. "It is absolutely the best gift I've ever been given," I told her. "I have you and Grandma in my thoughts every time I look at it. It is perfect."
She was still ashamed of her stitches, but a deal's a deal – the quilt was mine to do with as I wanted.
A year passed. My family faced bouts of unemployment and a crushing stack of bills. Several frustrated squabbles later, I slipped from my restless bed.
We all go through rough patches, and I knew things would get better, but I needed a sign that things could change.
I quietly tiptoed downstairs in search of relief. Food, my first choice of comfort, drew me across the family room and toward the refrigerator.
Moonlight swept in through the family room window, spotlighting the quilt. As I glanced at the now-familiar wall hanging, I stopped, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. There – caught in the eerie light of a moonbeam – was an aberration. It didn't look like "our" quilt.
It seemed as though a geometric design of Grecian urns and triangles hung in its place. Not a basket in sight. The antique fabrics first held their new images and then, as I stared, slowly slipped back into their traditional roles – baskets and a fish began to reappear.
I wandered toward the kitchen, not comprehending what I had seen. Then, on silent feet I returned to peek again. Once more I saw Grecian urns and triangles. The shadowy moonlight had brought out the quilt's secret, a talent for illusion.
Some quilt patterns, like ocean waves and building blocks, are expected to seem to shift. But not basket quilts.
Yet, the busy green and gold print blocks stepped forward to join with the little triangles of the baskets' borders, forming pedestals while the baskets disassembled to fade into the background.
Pounding up the stairs, I roused my slumbering mate and children.
I forcefully marched unwilling male feet down the stairs and lined them up where I had stood to witness the midnight revelation. Sleep-filled eyes finally focused on the quilt and together, as a family, we watched the fabrics perform.
"Well, I'll be...."
"You see it, too?"
"I see it, Mom! The fish is gone!"
"But wait," I said. "It is there. Just look again."
Impressed with the midnight revelation, we ignored the call of a new day and stood together before the quilt.
We encircled one another with our arms, shared warmth, and drew close. The quilt's illusion transformed us from a knot of angry individuals into a family once again.
I had my sign. If a quilt could change by moonlight, we could change a few financial woes. I was sure of it.
The women of my family faced their own difficulties, and I could do no less.
Now, whenever something seems impossible, I glance at that old quilt, feel family gather around me – and smile.